Wolves were once federally protected but now can be hunted again, making the fate and future of the wolf more controversial than ever. UK journalist Jim Wickens reports from Wyoming and Montana to provide his unique insight into the wolf wars of the West. His blog accompanies the exclusive Earth Focus report, Shades of Gray: Living with Wolves, now online!
A sharp intake of breath. The bow tightens. A momentary silence, and then a whip-like crack as a silicon-tipped arrow flies, hammering into a tree trunk 30 meters away with a determined thud. We are with the president of Helena Bow hunters, a proud organization of local people who hunt down elk, deer, mountain lions, and even bears with just a bow and arrow. Reviled by animal rights advocates, bow hunters are a fairly cautious lot. But after a lot of effort we managed to track down the president to ask about wolves.
As anyone who has ever lived abroad will attest to, the international media love to frame US hunters as a uniform bunch of tea-party, gun-toting, trophy-chasing elderly white men from Texas. Forgive the painfully simplistic stereotype, but I'm sure you get the point.
Predictably perhaps, I was in for a shock. In our naivety, we hadn't been expecting a woman, let alone a nurse in a beat-up old car, to be meeting us at the archery range on the outskirts of Helena. With a wide smile and a contagious fire in her eyes, Joelle Silk then spent the next two hours shooting down the stereotypes that cling to attitudes regarding hunting in the US. A deep knowledge of Montanan forest ecology, a passion for the outdoors and a distinct humbleness marked out Joelle from anything I was expecting to find. For the last 20 years she has immersed herself in traditional bow hunting, a past-time that requires the hunter to get within 30 yards of their quarry, requiring immense skill, patience and dedication. Joelle had got involved with hunting two decades ago when she worked for the national park service, seeing it as a way to feed herself with a limited income. And she was quick to explain that for many people in Montana who live on below average national income, the bagging of an elk or deer can keep a family fed for months. There are people out hunting for trophies, but for Joelle and indeed almost every interviewee we had met in Montana, the annual 'elk tag' fee that people buy over the counter enables people to eat a meat that is natural, hormone-free and a world-away from the factory-farm hell where the majority of meat and dairy on sale in American supermarkets comes from.
The problem is that wolves like elk too. A lot. Since wolves were introduced to Yellowstone the elk herd has dramatically reduced. It is, according to wolf advocates, a 'leaner but meaner elk herd' that we see today in Montana. But there is no doubt that the huge herd sizes have gone and that elk have dispersed around the state. Ordinary blue-collar folk in Montana are finding it harder to locate the elk, and so it is not surprising that they feel threatened by wolves, a species that is now competing with them for the cheapest, healthiest and arguably the most ethical source of meat in the state. Earlier on in the day I had spent time chatting with a middle-aged Montanan couple sat in the booth next to us in a diner. The lady said that when her kids were growing up, she wouldn't have known how they would have got by were it not for the free meat that wild-elk in the freezer provided.
However understandable these fears might be, fish and game authority figures do suggest otherwise: the elk herd in Montana is currently at or even above the desired size of 150,000 animals, and that is with a wolf pack in excess of 600 animals. But there does seem to be little doubt that wolves are dispersing elk, breaking them into smaller groups and dispersing them out of traditional grounds, basically making the chase just a little bit harder for would-be hunters and home providers.
Joelle doesn't seem too worried about this, but adds that her members are simply relieved that finally Montanans can begin to manage wolf numbers through a legalized wolf hunt, as they do any other species from ungulates through to bob cats or mountain lions.
As I have come to learn over this last week, for outsiders looking into this debate, the empowerment aspect of the Rocky mountain wolf hunts should not be underestimated. Numbers aside, and irrespective of the ethics of hunting carnivores such as wolves with traps, guns, or bows; paradoxically it seems to me that wolves may just stand a better chance of acceptance within Montana precisely because they can be legally hunted and killed.
Although she won't admit it on camera, I suspect that Joelle might be one of many secretly hoping that wolves remain in Montana for a long time to come.
Jim Wickens is one of Britain's leading investigative journalists and the co-founder of both the Ecologist Film Unit and also Ecostorm, the environmental media agency. Jim has spend the last decade documenting unreported issues around the world, including exposing illicit whale-meat smuggling networks in Japan, filming the brutal Namibian seal hunt, documenting soya-related murders and poisoning in Argentina, breaking the story of fracking problems in the US, and filming illegal trawlers far out to sea on the Burmese border.